Banjo on lap, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton leans back in a folding chair in a house tucked between the north bend of the Willamette River and the railroad tracks. It’s a wintry February eve, and the renowned bluesman is far away from the stages and mics of downtown and the Whiteaker, but not the crowds: Paxton is playing to a living room full of fans. He gleams as he shuffles around his instruments and swaps quips with the audience.
“What do you want to hear?” Paxton asks the audience sitting at his feet. “Delta blues!” “Sun House!” The peanut gallery chimes. “Those are too blue,” Paxton replies. Then, from the back of the room, a soft voice requests, “Some of These Days,” causing Paxton to pause and open a big smile. “We have a heckler,” he responds to the gentle request.
While Paxton plays, the audience occasionally joins in and softly sings along to the choruses of traditional folk blues songs, lifting the room into some seraphic space where performer and audience function as one. This show is just one of the many put on each month by indie booker Mike Meyer, one among several purveyors of these house or alternative venue shows now riding the underground current.
From the Cuthbert Amphitheater to WOW Hall to The Shedd, and even Wednesday nights at Max’s Tavern or impromptu nights at Tiny Tavern, Eugene offers multiple stages and shows. But the audience has spoken: People want to see live music that established venues aren’t always able to offer, featuring artists of varying levels of popularity and financial pull. A few scrappy individuals are bringing that music to our ears.
Regular folks who work at salons, radio stations and grocery stores are opting to offer their own homes as venues, booking shows themselves rather than relying on local establishments. Churches in Eugene even have a history of hosting shows such as Holly Near, booked by Meyer, whose hit concert filled the Unitarian Universalist Church last Valentine’s Day. And new venues like The Boreal are filling their all-ages shows to capacity. With independent spaces catering to various genres of music from punk rock to folk, Eugeneans have had the opportunity to catch Mickey Hart, Bruce Cockburn, Holly Near, La Luz, Peter Case, Tony Trischka, King Tuff, White Mystery and Diarrhea Planet — all outside the walls of a commerical venue.
This trend is good not only for the bookers and the audience, it’s good for the musicians — allowing face time with an audience that might not have been available to them otherwise. But this undercurrent may not stay underground for long, with national companies like Undertow booking intimate house shows from its offices in Seattle and St. Louis.
THE NEW OLD PHENOMENON
“Why would an artist play a house show?” Meyer asks. “It’s a quality experience but not necessarily a quantity experience yet. A lot of people are very hesitant about going to a house concert; they’re much more comfortable going to another venue, so it’s a slow shift. And it’s still in its infancy in some ways.”
Meyer, who serves on the WOW Hall’s board of directors and broadcasts with community radio station KRVM, is Eugene’s acoustic music savant. For the past few years, he’s booked countless shows in living rooms, bookstores and pizzerias, often bringing to Eugene artists that play the soothing, arty music found on NPR during weekend mornings. His house shows can rally a crowd of close to 50, and occasionally he’ll pack Cozmic or Tsunami Books.
“I always wanted to enhance the acoustic scene here in Eugene,” Meyer says. “I feel like it’s a very supportive town for acoustic music, partially because of the legacy of the ’60s. And just how people enjoy expression in general.”
House shows are by no means a new phenomenon, but it’s the way house shows are being organized now, with the advent of the internet, that marks a break with the past. In the past half decade, Eugene has seen a steady rise in house-show culture. A 2008 EW article by Chuck Adams, “Secret Houses: Eugene’s house concert scene is slowly resurfacing. Just don’t tell anyone,” mentions police crackdowns during the early 2000s as a reason why the scene slowed down, but by 2008 house shows were coming back, albeit in secret.
Michael Knackstedt recalls the early days of house concerts. “Well, I remember back when I was doing my undergrad at the UO and there was a house venue way out in the west hills called Stonehenge, and they brought a lot of K Records through and they would do shows in their basement, in their living room, sometimes out near the fire,” says Knackstedt, an indie booker for DIY Eugene (formerly Small Howl), which often hosts shows at Whiteaker coffee shop Wandering Goat. “It was just a really cool scene. It was very community-driven and everybody knew each other at shows.”
The house-show scene at that time was much more hushed, with marketing done solely through personal invites online and word-of-mouth. In the 2008 story, Adams even used pseudonyms for certain houses to conceal their identity.
Knackstedt says he believes the rise in underground gigs is due to the unavailability of shows offered by local establishments. “I think it’s partially because of the relative inaccessibility of a lot of formalized venues. I’m not going to name names, but the main formal venues in town are not very accessible to a lot of smaller, local touring bands,” Knackstedt says.“There are a lot of people here in the music scene who want to bring a lot of these smaller bands through and the best way to do that is through grassroots, smaller house shows and venues like the Wandering Goat.”
Venues are only a piece of the puzzle, as Amelia Hart, one of the indie bookers for Behavior Castle, and Meyer point out.
“It’s young people being here,” Hart says. “I feel like more young people are choosing to stay in Eugene or moving to Eugene. There have always been young people, but the university is very segregated so they don’t always venture down this way. Even The Barn Light is a good example. These guys are young, hip and cool, and they don’t have to be in Eugene but they are and it’s great for us. I think young people are really seeing the possibilities that are available here.”
Meyer points to economic struggles as a reason why the area has seen a rise in smaller independent shows. “I’m thinking it happened when the electronic boom really hit and that CDs became less prominent. Oh, and when gas prices went up too,” he says. “I think when gas prices went up that was a very difficult thing for touring artists. And it took a while, I’d say two to three years after gas prices went up.” House shows also offer potential money-making pit stops for bands heading from one big city to the next.
“Unfortunately as society makes some painful choices about what it supports, music is not supported enough in commercial venues so that’s left house concerts by default,” Meyer says. “And so all of a sudden, I think there is an explosion lately of house concerts. I’m thinking of that movie The Real Dirt on Farmer John where his world of the farms collapsed and then he got a redemption in organic farming. And so house concerts are kind of like the organic farming redemption from the farm crash.”
The Kids of the Castle
“My uncle is this big, tough-guy motorcycle dude,” Sammy Clatterbuck says. The other half of the local booking duo Behavior Castle, Clatterbuck recalls what inspired him to begin booking independent shows.
“When I was 12, I wanted this band to play. They were playing the city after us and the city before us and I was so bummed. I was complaining and my uncle said …” Clatterbuck prepares for an impersonation of his uncle, lowering his voice to a raspy, aggressive tone.
“‘Are you going to complain about it or do something about it? Wimp — contact them!’ I picked up the CD booklet, found the email, wrote them an email. They had a P.O. box, and I wrote them a letter, went online and found a phone number.”
Clatterbuck pulled it off and booked The Nerve Agents. Years later this instance would end up serving as the flick that triggered a string of dominos leading to a herd of young punk music fans cramming into the former Paper Moon Studios last August for King Tuff’s performance, or 543 Blair for the equally packed La Luz show. Clatterbuck and his partner Hart have been operating as Behavior Castle for the past year and a half, booking independent shows in their home basement as well as bars and studio spaces.
“I wasn’t seeing the bands that I wanted to see coming through town,” Hart says. “If no one is booking the music that I want to see, there isn’t a reason I shouldn’t do it. With anything, if you don’t like what’s happening, make something happen.”
Behavior Castle shows attract anywhere from 50 to 200 people; the La Luz show in early February brought in about 150 attendees. The duo had been using 543 Blair (now under the name Countdown Studio) as its main venue, but they’re currently expanding and searching for new warehouses and spaces to accommodate their growth.
“We very quickly outgrew 543 Blair, which is sad, but also isn’t going to stop us,” Hart says. “The response from the community and even people from out of town shows us that this needs to keep happening, that there is a huge need for more live music, more all-ages shows, more rock ‘n’ roll, more creative outlets, especially in a place like Eugene where you can create anything you’d like.”
Due to their DIY ethic, everything from posters, venue maintenance and drinks for the band are covered out of pocket from Hart and Clatterbuck. Hart says they spend anywhere from $30 to $100 setting up a show on their own.
“We lose money on every show we do,” Clatterbuck says. “We don’t get anything out of it financially.”
But financial gain isn’t one of Behavior Castle’s goals. “It’s about the bands making money, you know,” Hart says.
“The secret is that they make more money when you’re not paying anything with the venue,” Clatterbuck quickly adds, referencing the cut of proceeds that is a common part of the contract between many commercial venues and musicians.
La Luz guitarist Shana Cleveland weighs in: “Amelia and Samuel, who put on the show, were really awesome. It’s just clear that they are passionate about putting on shows that will be a great experience for both the bands and the audience.” Cleveland adds that she appreciates smaller shows for the way they allow musicians to associate with their audiences.
“When we play house shows, it’s easier to feel connected to the audience, which is really important to me,” she adds. “The whole night was just really stellar.”
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Behavior Castle is just one of many local independent concert promoters and bookers. The most recent addition to Eugene’s venue repertoire is the all-ages venue The Boreal, which opened its doors in mid-January. Located on the other side of the train tracks and in the shadow of Skinner’s Butte, The Boreal has already hosted sold-out shows and provided opportunities to rising musicians in area. The stripped-down venue with high ceilings and a capacity of 80 is not all that different from your childhood basement. Similar to the humble beginnings of Behavior Castle, the advent of The Boreal came when a group of friends was returning from a trip to Diamond Peak.
“We were listening to a band called Circle Takes the Square and they’re a heavier band that wouldn’t really fit in with the bar scene,” Sean Prive says while setting up for The Boreal’s fourth show. “And our friend Eric, who had been hiking with us that day, mentioned that he booked Circle Takes the Square when he lived in D.C. And it kind of dawned on me you couldn’t do that here.”
Along with Boreal cofounders Eric Devin and Kathryn Alexander, Prive noticed a hole in the Eugene music scene for amateur bands and musicians both local and traveling. Established venues can’t afford to house every band, which leaves a gap for artists hoping to grow and expand.
“There are tons of bands like that who are heavy enough where they don’t fit in and are aggressive and not really marketable types of music that will ever make it big,” Prive adds. “They won’t be at the McDonald Theatre and they probably won’t even be at the WOW Hall. They don’t fit the bar scene because they cater to people who are under 21. If you want to go to a concert and you want to see a band that couldn’t make it at the WOW Hall, maybe a house show could work — but a lot of those get shut down due to complaints. So there weren’t too may options for us to book a show like that here.”
Open for only a few months, The Boreal is already achieving success with a packed opening night and new shows announced weekly. “I did not expect that turn out,” Prive says of The Boreal’s debut. “Everyone loved it.” The Boreal booked the Baltimore-based Circle Takes the Square for a show on April 23.
UNDERTOW FOLLOWS THE CURRENT
Roughly 40 strangers assemble in the living room of a house in the south hills of Eugene. Sitting crossed-legged or leaning against the walls, the attendees direct their attention to the corner of the room where singer-songwriter Richard Buckner is prepping for his set, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and a chair.
The independent collective Undertow Music booked Buckner’s show and a local fan provided the space. Beginning in 2009, Undertow jumped on this hyper-local trend and began organizing massive cross-country tours for artists to play in living rooms instead of conventional venues. In the past year, acts such as Damien Jurado, Will Johnson and David Bazan have all preformed in Eugene through Undertow’s coordination. Undertow brings two more musicians, Simon Joyner and Wooden Wand, to a living room show in Eugene May 10.
At this stage, it’s difficult to say if the trend toward independent shows will continue or how it will affect the established music industry, but one thing is certain: Audiences and musicians are basking in the intimacy that these independent shows provide.
After playing a few songs Buckner looks out at the room and says, “Man this is so much fucking better than playing Joe Henry’s — what’s the name?” Amongst the laughter, a member of the audience corrects him. “John Henry’s!” he yells. Buckner grins and later comments on the house-show style of performing. “This is for you,” he says to the visible faces that surround him. “But mainly for me.”
Undertow artist Will Johnson plays a South Eugene living room. Photo by Trask Bedortha.
‘Blind Boy’ Paxton plays 755 River Rd. Photo by Todd Cooper.
La Luz, booked by Behavior Castle play 543 Blair. Photo by Trask Bedortha.